NEW YORK, Nov 9 — Operas often revolve around flawed heroines who fall into tragic — even sordid — love affairs. But rarely does one combine a Hitchcockian edge, costumes straight out of Mad Men and a storyline that feels tailor-made for the #MeToo era.
“Marnie” — now making its US debut at the Met in New York — tells the story of a glamorous yet troubled young woman in late 1950s England who embezzles money from her employers and moves on.
One theft too far leaves her prey to unscrupulous men whose unwanted advances, crude even six decades ago, resonate as America stumbles through a nationwide reckoning about sexual misconduct.
“I wanted the audience to leave where they think, ‘I kind of like them and I kind of don’t like them’ all at the same time,” star Isabel Leonard told AFP in an interview about her title character and the men around her.
“So they’re left with something to think about.”
The opera is Nico Muhly’s reworking of a dark 1961 novel by Winston Graham that was later adapted for the silver screen by Alfred Hitchcock — whose star Tippi Hedren has revealed that the legendary director repeatedly harassed her.
The formula and timely subject matter is certainly a departure for the 135-year-old Met, but falls into its current strategy of trying to make the art form more accessible to younger audiences.
After seeing the Hitchcock film again a few years ago, director Michael Mayer pitched the idea to Met brass, who commissioned the work from Muhly, a young American composer who calls opera a “magical idiom.”
“Marnie” will be simulcast in cinemas worldwide this weekend as part of the Met’s “Live in HD” series — another outreach project aimed at drawing in new fans.
‘Extra icky’ in post-Weinstein world
“Marnie” opens with flashing images of the show’s icy main character in various incarnations past and present. The opera unfolds in a world of gray offices, transient city bars and psychological tension.
But Marnie and her madrigal-like choir of Shadows — four other lookalikes who help explain her inner turmoil — pop off the stage in bright-coloured dresses and coats reminiscent of the Technicolor world of Mad Men and the Hitchcock film.
Muhly built the piece as a series of episodes occasionally broken up by asides in which Marnie ruminates on what just happened and plots her next move.
These interludes “serve as momentary windows into her train of thought,” Muhly wrote in a note about the production, adding that her music was written to be “disjointed” to reflect her shattered state of mind.
The audience is forced to confront some unpleasant truths about Marnie’s prospects vis-a-vis men — the character is ogled, groped and nearly raped. But her relationships with men are left ambiguous.
To prepare for the part, Leonard, a mezzo-soprano, said she read the Graham book, but avoided the movie because she didn’t want the images to influence her performance, and also because she found the preview “sort of exploitative.”
The opera’s creative team was in rehearsal in London last fall when the Harvey Weinstein story broke, ushering in the #MeToo era, Mayer recalled.
The production has not been changed in light of those events, but the indignities suffered by Marnie feel “extra icky now because we’re so hyper-aware of the lines of behaviour,” Mayer told AFP.
“These men are treating her in a wildly inappropriate way,” he said. “That would have been true 10 years ago and 40 and 50 years ago, but it just seems to have extra resonance at the moment.” — AFP